Game coaxes you to shed a cyber-tear

Video: The new sequel to the popular "Sims" aspires to evoke players' emotions.

September 16, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Video games are a lot of things - a $7 billion-a-year industry, a source of entertainment for millions of Americans, a pop culture phenomenon that has spawned books and films and, some argue, a medium that glorifies violence. But the one thing they are not is tear-jerkers.

At least until now.

Tomorrow, game industry leader Electronic Arts releases The Sims 2, a souped-up sequel to the best-selling computer game of all time and an attempt to reach an emotional level rarely achieved by video games. The Sims 2, in short, wants to make you cry.

The way to do that, Electronic Arts says, is through the use of artificial, or preprogrammed, intelligence. Unlike the original Sims, characters in the sequel will have aspirations, fears and memories that guide their actions. They will behave more like real people - with the hope that the real people playing the game form attachments to them.

Such emotional responses are common in the passive arts - theater, film, literature. But so far they have eluded video games, a medium that has rapidly evolved to offer stunning on-screen graphics but little depth or emotion. For video games to broaden their audience, and to step up as an artistic form, game makers realize that must change.

"As an industry, we understand that engendering emotional response is the only way you make anything of an entertainment nature interesting," said Chris Klug, a professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University and former online creative director for Electronic Arts. "If we don't engender that response, the audience is going to turn away and do something else."

Toward that end, creators of The Sims 2, which will sell for $50, have allowed players to choose not only the appearances of their characters, but also their personalities and aspirations.

Characters can be neat, shy, playful, grouchy, lazy - or the opposites of those traits. They can aspire to wealth or popularity or family. They can form memories: If they get burned in their kitchen, they'll order pizza for dinner the next night.

And, unlike the previous edition of The Sims, which came out in 2000, characters in the new game can die. Sims 2 characters experience six stages of life - from infancy to old age - and when they die, they pass their traits on to their children, and beyond.

"You feel deeply engaged in the lives of the human beings you've created," said Lucy Bradshaw, the game's executive producer. "It's certainly a goal, to bring more of an emotional sensibility into games. It's essential this medium gets to that level."

In seeking that level, Sims 2 creators worked with experts in human behavior to shape their characters. And Electronic Arts, the Northern California-based maker of The Sims and the world's biggest video game company, is opening a 500-person studio in Los Angeles and hiring movie industry veterans to help bring emotion and storytelling to video games.

More than the `look'

The video game medium is, relatively speaking, in its infancy. Hardly anyone played the games 20 years ago, but now more than half of Americans say they do. Rapid progress in technology has meant that video games look better and better, and industry officials say "photo realism" - games that look like real life - will be the norm in five years.

That means games will have to offer something other than graphics to distinguish themselves from competitors.

"Every game will look as good as the next one," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. "The game community is going to have to do a better job of giving the players something to connect to the game. It will inevitably be better writing, better plots, better storytelling and a better job of creating a truly immersive experience."

Enter The Sims. The first edition of the game was built on the popular SimCity games in which players built towns complete with roads, parks, power plants, homes. If Godzilla or a natural disaster ripped through your town, you didn't much care. You just started over again.

The Sims allowed players to put people in the houses they built. But much of the game was devoted to tending to the Sims' basic needs - eating, bathing, using the bathroom. They were stupid, in a way: They would walk through fires or get stuck in a corner.

"In Sims 1 it was a little bit like Groundhog Day," said Bradshaw, the executive producer, referring to the Bill Murray film in which a man keeps repeating a single day over and over. "Your Sim woke up every day and it was a brand new day."

Aspirations, personality

The original game was a hit, but the creators realized that for a sequel, the characters would not only have to look more human - with more choices of hairstyles and clothing - but act more human. So they imbued them with aspirations and personality traits. They had Sims share DNA with their children and grandchildren. If a family member dies, relatives become sad and mope around. Their gloomy thoughts appear in bubbles over their heads.

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